As space launch business heats up in Florida, Air Force commander Wayne Monteith tries to break records

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U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith took command of the 45th Space Wing in August 2015. As of this writing, 50 satellites have gone to space under his watch.

The 50th was Luxembourg’s GovSat-1 that flew Jan. 31 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. “That started a 30-day cycle when we’ll do four launches,” Monteith told SpaceNews.

The second of those four was last week’s Falcon Heavy debut, soon to be followed by a late February launch of a Falcon 9 carrying the Hispasat 30W-6 communications satellite and a March 1 launch of an Atlas 5 carrying the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-S weather satellite.

In addition to wing commander, Monteith is director of the Eastern Range. Headquartered at Patrick Air Force Base, Florid, the range supports launches from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, as well as launches from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport some 1,400 kilometers up the Atlantic seaboard in Wallops Island, Virginia.

What is happening now at the Florida spaceports, he said, is the “second renaissance of space.”

Monteith is a military officer who speaks with the enthusiasm of a startup CEO. “When people say the space business is down, they’re not spending much time down here where I have four launches in a month,” he commented.

The general has made headlines for his bullish predictions. He believes there will be enough customers and capacity on the Eastern Range in the future for 48 launches a year. “Two years ago we did 23,” he noted. Last year the number was 19 but only because of two massive hurricanes that caused $63 million worth of damages to the base. The 2018 manifest has 34 launches: 23 for government customers and 11 commercial.

The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing supported United Launch Alliance’s launch of the U.S. Navy’s MUOS-5 satellite on June 24, 2016. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing supported United Launch Alliance’s launch of the U.S. Navy’s MUOS-5 satellite on June 24, 2016. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

There is much excitement about SpaceX’s new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, said Monteith. Once certified, it could bring in significant new business. United Launch Alliance, which flies most of the U.S. military’s and intelligence agencies’ satellites, is transitioning to a new vehicle, the Vulcan. This year, only seven of Florida’s planned 34 launches will be by ULA.

“ULA is preparing for Vulcan,” Monteith said. “So they’re ramping down a little bit.” The new rocket will require infrastructure upgrades and will need to be certified by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, to carry national security payloads.

SMC also is in the process of certifying the new version of the Falcon 9, called Block 5. Falcon Heavy’s Feb. 6 debut was a demonstration flight. Monteith called it a “prelude” to a June launch of Falcon Heavy carrying the Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 batch of experimental satellites.

Falcon Heavy’s 27 main-stage engines generate 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, enough to lift 26,700 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit. “It will open up the aperture for potentially additional DoD launches.”

Monteith estimated it could take up to five years for his 48-launches-per-year vision to reach fruition. “Right now we don’t need 48 launches. But our demand is on the increase,” he said. “SpaceX would like to be able to launch every single week, or at least every other week.”

Besides Vulcan, there is NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System that will debut in 2019 or 2020. “And we’re getting ready for Blue Origin,” Monteith added. Blue Origin is moving into a rocket factory it built at Kennedy Space Center’s Exploration Park, right across the street from where OneWeb is manufacturing the hundreds of broadband satellites Blue’s New Glenn rocket will help haul to orbit.

Blue Origin also is looking to fly tourists aboard its suborbital New Shepard rocket. “Even if Blue Origin launches every other week, and SpaceX launches every other week, that’s 48 right there,” Monteith insists. “I believe the demand will absolutely be there over the next two to five years.”

In 2017, the spaceport Monteith oversees did about 25 percent of the world’s successful launches, he said. “We launched more than China, more than Russia on their home soil.” (Russia’s busiest spaceport is in Kazakhstan).

All told, the U.S. conducted 29 launches in 2017 with no failures. Russia launched 21 times with one failure. China, which hopes to launch 40 times this year, conducted 18 launches, two of which failed.

Speed of business

By and large, the federal government is not run like a business but that is not the case at Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. “We move at the speed of business as opposed to at the speed of bureaucracy,” Monteith said. The efficiency of these operations “helps the DoD and the nation,” he said.

With the space industry “we have a symbiotic relationship,” he added. “Without these new commercial entities coming into the industrial base, it’s more difficult for me to provide assured access to space.”

The Eastern Range has made itself more competitive by cutting its “day of launch” footprint by 60 percent in just over two years, said Monteith. “That reduces the cost to fly off this range. It opens up the potential for more new entrants and smaller companies to become competitive.”

Robotics technology will bring new efficiencies, he said. SpaceX, for example, now uses an autonomous flight safety system to command its rockets to self destruct if they veer off course.

“I do anticipate in the near future, within the next five to 10 years, all of our customers will be flying autonomous flight safety systems,” said Monteith. “That really enables us to fundamentally change the throughput of the range.”

When he arrived in 2015, “we struggled to do two launches a week on a traditional flight safety system,” Monteith said. By December 2016, the record improved to two launches in 72 hours, and by March 2017 it was two launches in 66 hours. “Now I can do two launches in 24 hours,” he said. “That’s the benefit of autonomous flight safety. I don’t have to ‘lock down the range’ and have my fixed sites dedicated to a single mission.”

Another modernization project involves replacing fixed range instrumentation with mobile systems. “This gives me the flexibility to get them closer to the actual launch pad,” he said. “If I’m closer and have a better signal, I can protect it more easily.”

When hurricanes hit, the equipment can be moved to shelters. The savings are significant. It costs at least $15 million to secure a fixed site. “With that money I can buy eight to 10 mobile systems,” he said. “That really opens up the ability to adapt to different customers.”

Monteith rattled off some eye-popping statistics. Since 2008, the launch rate at his ranges has increased 400 percent, but the staff needed to support those launches has decreased by one-third, and the required instrumentation is down by half.

But there are times when reality trumps efficiency, as when hurricanes come rolling in, or Congress shuts down the government.

The government in fact shut down on Jan. 19 just a few hours after the Air Force and ULA managed to get a critical missile-warning satellite into orbit. “We were very motivated to get SBIRS launched before the government shut down,” said Monteith. If the schedule had slipped, the launch would have been canceled because civilian workers get furloughed when the government closes. “We can’t launch rockets without civilian employees.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.